British novelist Freud (Summer at Gaglow, 1998, etc.) traces two adulterous love affairs, separated by half a century, in the seaside village of Steerborough.
German refugee Max Meyer arrives there in 1953, struggling to regain a sense of purpose after the death of his sister. Fifty years later, Lily Brannan rents a cottage in Steerborough so she can research her architecture school project about the work of Klaus Lehmann, who like Max fled Germany for England to escape Nazi persecution of Jews. In fact, we learn as the two stories unfold in parallels that are almost too neat, Max met Klaus and fell in love with his wife Elsa during the summer of ’53. As Lily reads Klaus’s letters to Elsa from the 1930s, when he traveled frequently to foster his career but sent hectoring missives home, similarities also become apparent between Klaus’s attempts to direct his beloved’s life from afar and Lily’s fraught relationship with her ambitious, controlling boyfriend Nick, a rising young London architect. Freud vividly sketches the quiet charms of village life as Max becomes immersed in his effort to paint every house in Steerborough on a single paper scroll, and as Lily considers moving there permanently as her frustration with Nick rises and her attraction to a young father with a troubled wife grows. Though the Holocaust is never mentioned directly, the German characters’ memories impart a sense of menace, heightened by references to Steerborough’s susceptibility to flooding. Rising waters provoke the climax of both stories, and Max’s and Lily’s affairs both end sadly, although the author gives one of her protagonists a tentative second chance at love. Freud writes with elegance, intertwines many complex narrative threads with impressive skill, and limns her characters’ psychological states with acuity; she also provides astute insights into the creative process in a series of letters from Max’s fictional mentor. Indeed, The Sea House is perhaps a little too accomplished for its own good, somewhat scanting the messy ambiguities of real life for the admittedly considerable satisfactions of highly polished art.
Intelligent and reflective, but curiously unmoving.